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Young, educated and unionized: Hill staffers at vanguard of white-collar labor movement

Upwardly mobile professionals are growing union ranks

Philip Bennett speaks during a July 2022 news conference on union organizing at the U.S. Capitol.
Philip Bennett speaks during a July 2022 news conference on union organizing at the U.S. Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Philip Bennett spent untold hours last year working a second job. By day, he was scheduler for Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. By night, he was leading the push to unionize not just Omar’s aides but the rest of congressional staff as the Congressional Workers Union’s first president.

His organizing work didn’t pay anything, of course. With her support, Omar’s staff formed their union last autumn, but the pecuniary payoff for that — in the form of higher wages or more time off — won’t come until they sign a collective bargaining agreement, which is still months away.

When that happens, though, Bennett won’t enjoy a pay bump or any extra days off. He left Omar’s office at the start of the year to become operations director for freshman Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa. “I’m not going to benefit from that contract,” Bennett said. “But I’m immensely proud and happy of the workers who will [benefit] in that office.”

After decades of slow, steady decline, unions are suddenly and rapidly rebounding. A total of 1,673 workplaces petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections in 2019; last year that figure rose to 2,072. 

Young workers – including white-collar professionals like congressional staffers – have led the way. While the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. remained flat between 2019 and 2021, the percentage between age 25 and 34 grew from 8.8 percent to 9.4 percent. New unions have been formed by Ivy League grad students, Google engineers and museum curators. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows professionals like teachers, nurses, nonprofit workers and government employees are among those growing labor’s ranks.

Perhaps no group illustrates this trend as much as the CWU. Although socioeconomic factors help drive young graduates’ interest in unions, financial self-interest alone can’t explain why someone like Bennett would work so hard for collective bargaining rights he’d never enjoy.

Bennett’s decision to jump shops is hardly rare; “striving” is a stereotypical descriptor for congressional aides for a reason. It’s natural for younger workers in any profession to skip around more — for decades now, the median tenure in a job for 25- to 34-year-old employees has hovered around three years. And a recent Washington Post survey of workers found that younger generations were more ambitious than their older colleagues.

Unions’ first appeal is to workers’ self-interest: The work you put in to collect union cards, hold an election, fight off management’s union-busting, and then go about collectively bargaining a contract — a process that takes 465 days on average and carries with it a real risk of not just failure but of losing your job just for trying — ultimately pays off with higher pay, better benefits, and more job security.

That usual unionization recompense is, at best, muted on the Hill: Congress only provides so much for its Members’ Representational Allowance, so paying junior staffers more means either reducing top aides’ pay or hiring fewer employees. Staffer unions may have more luck getting stronger time off perks or work-from-home flexibility, but they won’t be able to make blanket demands for more pay like private sector or many public sector unions.

But that’s just one half of the union pitch. The other is the chance to join something bigger than yourself. “A huge part of it is community,” said Courtney Laudick, a CWU co-founder.

Unions have always cast themselves as social movements, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, even as that idea has met with varying success. That goes double for some of today’s white-collar unions, like the CWU.

“The better comparison is not unionization in auto plants but the civil rights movement or women’s rights movement,” Lichtenstein said. “Lots of people in the civil rights movement were privileged white guys who went down to the South because they saw it as a moral thing. They weren’t going to benefit directly.”

Unions’ appeal to the inherent sense of community and the desire to join a shared purpose may also be finding more purchase among younger generations in part because they’re the least religious.

The incoming CWU president, Emma Preston, said she joined the labor movement to change how Congress churns through its relatively underpaid staff.

“People that work on the Hill are here because we are really committed to the institution, to serving our constituents,” said Preston. “No one is unionizing in their office because they only want to work 40 hours a week or whatever.”

“When we have an expectation that you work on the Hill for two years and then you go to K Street, you have to ask yourself, ‘Who benefits from that?’” she said. “It’s the lobbyists.”

Working in Congress for decades used to be common. But after Speaker Newt Gingrich slashed legislative branch spending in 1995, pay levels for congressional staff — relative not just to the private sector, but to other federal jobs as well — never fully recovered (even despite some recent increases).

Gen Z and millennials also have low opinions of capitalism, driven in part by the significantly larger burden of college debt they have compared to earlier generations and the anemic job market many graduated into after the 2008 recession. The economic prospects for this generation has been so bleak that a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper suggested that a “rapid rise” in suicide rates among young people after 2010 can be explained by “economic hardship caused by the Great Recession.”

“There are some bedrock issues. Stagnation in wages. The payoff from higher education has been reduced,” Lichtenstein said. “All of those things have eviscerated the kind of the older, meritocratic sense that this ambitious, educated class once had. It’s led them to see structural problems that can only be resolved in a collective way.”

The CWU leaders said the pandemic, #MeToo movement and Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol combined to shatter the illusion that bosses usually had their employees’ best interests in mind, spurring the unionization movement.

Ideology also played a role, said Emilia Rowland, another CWU co-founder who, like Bennett, left her office mid-unionization for a better job. “In recent years, we’ve seen Democrats really decide that fighting for workers is going to be a core part of who we are as a party,” she said. “The folks who choose to work on the Hill — especially for bosses who are pro-worker — really take that seriously.”

“I think there’s just a realization that things are not great for this younger generation of folks who happen to work in these white-collar jobs,” Laudick added.

She described how watching her own parents’ careers motivated her to join the labor movement. “My dad worked as a project director in an engineering firm, and he worked every day of his life. He died at 65 before he got to retire — and he certainly did not have enough to be able to retire at 65,” she said, adding that her mother, a teacher, would like to retire but can’t afford it. “I think we’ve watched our parents work, work, work, work, work — to what end? Are they getting a retirement? Are they getting to retire early?”

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